Lately, I’ve come across a wide array of games that have gone with the decision to include self-aware writing in some fashion. Some games, such as Hellmut, do so as a means of creating a comedic atmosphere, which further enhances the chaotic whimsy of its hellish premise and setting. Booting up ZeroRanger for the first time, I would not have expected in any capacity to run into a similar kind of self-aware writing. The only difference being that here the self-awareness is a trap: ZeroRanger allows one to question the very foundation of what makes one a “self.”
Let me emphasize that a large majority of this game is strictly arcade-style, bullet-hell-type gameplay with a delightfully polished interface and orangey-green aesthetic. What it promises within trailers and screenshots is unequivocally answered by the full game experience. What keeps me thinking about the journey, however, are the cryptic hints of something grander, darker, stranger, oranger. ZeroRanger does well in hiding a crucial part of its game experience from the general eye. Even now, I still have no idea what it’s trying to say, either. That may just be the beauty of it.
ZeroRanger is available now on Steam for your regional pricing.
On the game’s Steam page, the only accompanying synopsis provided goes as follows:
“This is the story of a fighter who wanted to become…“
This is the player’s first hint. If one wishes to find answers, they play the game. Continuously. They don’t give up, never surrender, march forth with attempt after attempt. They learn the enemy movements, memorize each map’s terrain, and experiment with glee. Bit by bit, more information will be provided for the player’s advancement, though what will be acquired may not make much sense upon the first run. Whatever a “ZeroRanger” may be, this “Orange Green” alien threat, or what it all amounts to in the end is something only multiple playthroughs can provide… at least, I assume so.
I’m simply theorizing here, but there’s something about this vague, seemingly universally-encompassing plot that reminds me a lot of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its sci-fi setting, use of machines and human emotion, and constant existentialist leanings gives credit to the series as a direct inspiration—though again, it’s only my hunch. Whatever its inspirations, the incorporation of this complex narrative gives rise to the feeling of curiosity within the ever-present completionist that I am, and I’m sure to many others. It provides reason to continue going, to explore the worlds over and over, no matter how short the entire game appears to be. For me, personally, that’s far more motivation than point-based bragging rights.
Simultaneously, there’s reasonable doubt as to the necessity of such a potentially-pretentious plot in what, on the surface, appears to be a standard shoot-’em-up. I understand fully the desire to make something more than just a straightforward experience that harkens back to days of old, where adrenaline and difficulty were what made video games so respectable. At the same time, this may be a case of overcompensation, appealing to a niche collection of gamers who thrive on connecting the dots and pouring over subtle clues as to what they have to do get that next piece of the epic prophecy. Not to say I’m not one of them, though one must always be conscious of striking the balance between dumb and mentally-exhausting. Depending on the scenario, of course.
There was a little hesitation on my part concerning the difficulty of the bullet-hell nature of ZeroRanger. I have very little experience with the genre and I wasn’t sure if the game would be one that adheres to the veterans’ approach or easing newcomers into it. After my time with it, I’ve come to either one of two conclusions: I am good at video games or it eases newcomers into it. The main campaign isn’t incredibly difficult, though this is by no means an easy game. As stated before, one should experiment with their weapons and mannerisms when going up against bigger baddies, strategizing for the best course of action depending on the situation. Even more, the game’s rather lenient with save points in levels and even grants more continues as one plays, which is a very nice modern addition to the genre.
Aside from the Evangelion-esque narrative, what is probably the best part about ZeroRanger is its incredible amount of polish. It’s fast, responsive, incredibly detailed aesthetically, and has no slowdown. Enemies take a short amount of damage to be defeated, keeping the rhythm going, and the chaos that occasionally ensues from a screen-filling barrage of energy shots and dangerous obstacles really tests one’s reflexes. One fires at machine-gun-like rates for almost any weapon and the simple button directions eases one into back-and-forth weapon output for maximum efficiency. Beautifully productive.
Despite the work put into it, there’s a somewhat disappointing lack in gameplay variety, notably with the quantity of weapons and courses of action. The latter is somewhat excused for its arcade-aesthetic, but the former is definitely underwhelming. The game does offer some weapon variety, but nothing on the same level as, say, Gradius, in which weapons can stack and offers a plentiful bounty of ways to destroy enemy vessels. ZeroRanger has players use one weapon in one way, another in one way, and a third in one way. They cannot be used at the same time and each weapon tends to be better in certain situations than others. There are, however, two models of ships one can use that vary up the weapons slightly, though I don’t feel it’s enough. Perhaps offering more of a fair challenge, it would’ve also been nice to go about the levels like a world-destroying giga-weapon. A certain ability later on makes this somewhat accessible, but it’s limited to short-range mayhem.
Somewhat embellishing the cryptic nature of the game’s plot, there are also strange cues that occur when one plays this game a number of times. Booting the game up for the first time, the title screen won’t even show up, simply showing the player menus to peruse. Certain unskippable cutscenes play after getting a game over, getting to certain points in the main campaign alter messages given to the player after going back to the main menu screen. Little trinkets that further the game’s almost creepy atmosphere are aided by incongruent messages and switches that activate upon… something. There’s quite a bit to look forward to, even after getting a game over. It’s something of a treasure trove of different situations that leave the player unhinged, never knowing what to expect. It’s pretty fun.
Graphics & Sound
There is a certain look ZeroRanger uses that appeals to a certain type of gamer. That type of gamer is me. Its pixelwork is phenomenally-simple, coating itself only in shades of two colors: orange and green. Why orange and green? Good question. The amount of detail in enemy design, level design, and the subtle differences that signify secret goodies is wholly clear and wonderfully vibrant. While the cutscene animations aren’t the greatest pieces of pixelated placement, they offer enough of a distinctive buzz to make ZeroRanger stand out from other shoot-’em-ups. And while green isn’t typically my color of choice for menacing baddies, there’s a great variety of awesome-looking bosses here that, combined with orange highlights, make me question my own aesthetic sense. Not incredibly fond of the all-orange enemies, however. With the game’s framerate locked at sixty, the animation flows incredibly smoothly, as well.
For the first time since Rising Dusk, there is a game soundtrack that encourages me to listen to it outside the context of playing the game. Conveniently like Rising Dusk, the game provides a sound test feature for me to listen to tracks at my leisure. Whereas one game is mostly soft, lo-fi beats that evoke tranquility, ZeroRanger is all about adrenaline, boosting the feelings of excitement and the Sublime. While I don’t think this title’s soundtrack is quite as strong as some of its other attributes, it’s still something I think is a big plus in a game already full of big pluses. And for me, personally, a good soundtrack seems hard to come by now-a-days, so I’ll gladly take whatever quality sound design I can get.